Category Archives: Philosophy

Pierre Hadot on “Living a Philosophical Life”

Michael Chase: What do the expressions “philosophy” and “living a philosophical life” signify for you?

Pierre Hadot: For me, the word “philosophy” corresponds first of all to an historical phenomenon. It was the Greeks who created the word, probably in the sixth or fifth century BC, and it was Plato who gave it its strongest meaning: philo-sophia, “love of wisdom,” the wisdom which one lacks. Since that time there has been an intellectual, spiritual, and social phenomenon, which has taken on a variety of forms, and which has been called philosophy. From this point of view, it is legitimate to ask whether there exists a “philosophy” outside of the Western tradition, or of the Arabic tradition, insofar as the latter is the inheritor of Greek philosophy.

Now, an historical phenomenon is in constant evolution. Contemporary “philosophy” is obviously very different from the “philosophy” of Socrates and Plato, just as contemporary Christianity is very different from the Evangelistic message. Is this evolution a good thing? Is it an evil? I won’t go into that. I do think, however, that it is always legitimate to go back to the origins, in order better to understand the meaning of a phenomenon, and that is what I try to do.

I have tried to define what philosophy was for a person in antiquity. In my view, the essential characteristic of the phenomenon “philosophy” in antiquity was that at that time a philosopher was, above all, someone who lived in a philosophical way. In other words, the philosopher was someone whose life was guided by his or her reason, and who was a practitioner of the moral virtues. This is obvious, for example, from the portrait Alcibiades gives of Socrates at the end of Plato’s Symposium. We can also observe it in Xenophon, where Hippias asks Socrates for a definition of justice. Socrates replies: “Instead of talking about it, I make it appear through my actions.” Originally, then, philosophy is above all the choice of a form of life, to which philosophical discourse then gives justifications and theoretical foundations. Philosophical discourse is not the same thing as philosophy: the Stoics said so explicitly, and the other schools admitted it implicitly. True, there can be no philosophy without some discourse—either inner or outward—on the part of the philosopher. This can take the form of pedagogical activity carried out on others, of inner meditation, or of the discursive explanation of intuitive contemplation. But this discourse is not the essential part of philosophy, and it will have value only if it has a relationship with philosophical life. As an Epicurean sentence puts it: “The discourse of philosophers is in vain, unless it heals some passion of the soul.”

“Postscript: An Interview with Pierre Hadot,” in Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, trans. Michael Chase, ed. Arnold I. Davidson (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1995), 281-82.

Histories of Philosophy

A friend recently asked me to provide a reading list of books that contain surveys of philosophy. Below is the list that gave him. Now, I understand these are all, to some degree, narrative accounts from many different perspectives including both ancient, medieval, modern, and post-modern trajectories.

  • Louis Dupré, Passage to Modernity
  • Michael Allen Gillespie, Nihilism before Nietzsche
  • Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity
  • Adrian Pabst, Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy
  • Charles Taylor, The Sources of the Self
  • Charles Taylor, A Secular Age
  • Conor Cunningham, Genelogy of Nihilism: Philosophies of Nothing and the Difference of Theology
  • Philipp W. Rosemann,  Omne Agens Agit Sibi Simile: A “Repetition” of Scholastic Metaphysics
  • Pierre Hadot, What is Ancient Philosophy?
  • Dominique Janicaud (ed.), Phenomenology and the “theological Turn”: The French Debate
  • Philip Goodchild (ed.), Rethinking Philosophy of Religion: Approaches from Continental Philosophy
  • Jonathan I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750
  • Gillian Rose, Dialectic of Nihilism
  • John Mullarkey, Post-Continental Philosophy: An Outline

What would you add to this list?

Where Heaven and Earth Meet

“However, it is not the case that in any genus—even [the genus] of motion—we come to an unqualifiedly maximum and minimum. Hence, if we consider the various movements of the spheres, [we will see that] it is not possible for the world-machine to have, as a fixed and immovable centre, either our perceptible earth or air or fire or any other thing.

“Hence, the world does not have a [fixed] circumference. For if it had a fixed center, it would also have a [fixed] circumference; and hence it would have its own beginning and end within itself, and it would be bounded in relation to something else, and beyond the world there would be something else and space (locus). But all these [consequences] are false. Therefore, since it is not possible for the world to be enclosed between [a physical] center and a physical circumference, the world—of which God is the centre and the circumference—is not understood. And although the world is not infinite, it cannot be conceived as finite, because it lacks boundaries within which it is enclosed” (Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance, trans. Jasper Hopkins [Minneapolis: Banning, 1981], II.11; p. 114).

Karsten Harries associates this quotation with the Camille Flammarion woodcut (pictured above) in her Infinity and Perspective (pp. 46-8). The caption on the woodcut reads Un missionaire du moyen age raconte qu’il avait trouvé le “point où le ciel et la Terre se touchent”. Nothing more to add just now, but I really dig this.

Parasitical Reasoning

“There are Christian theisms which are parasitical upon forms of atheism, for they formulate a doctrine of God primarily in response to a certain kind of grounds for atheistic denial. It is a case worth considering that much eighteenth-century theodicy has this parasitical character, being a theism designed to respond primarily to the threat to it posed by the particular formulation of the problem of evil which prevailed in that century. In our time, the ill-named ‘creationists’ seem to offer but a craven reaction, trapped as they are into having to deny the very possibility of an evolutionary world, simply because they mistakenly suppose an evolutionary world could only be occupied by atheists. Thereby they play the atheist’s game, on the undemanding condition that they play on the losing team.” [Denys Turner, ‘Apophaticism, Idolatry, and the Claims of Reason’, in Oliver Davies and Denys Turner (eds.), Silence and the Word : Negative Theology and Incarnation (Cambridge: CUP, 2002), p. 15]

Furthermore, it is the evolutionary atheists who argue that evolution not only disproves God, but evolution is itself inherently atheistic. There are, of course so many problems with this claim (e.g. Darwin didn’t lose his faith because of his belief in evolution, but because of the suffering and death of his daughter, not to mention the fact that millions of Christians around the world have no problem with evolution, although ‘evolution’ would of course have to be unpacked a bit). But the real kicker here is that these Creationist Christians 1) don’t bother to learn the science, but 2) more damningly, actually accept these claims of the evolutionary atheists as if they were true. Really? Who says that evolution has to be atheistic?

After my PhD supervisor’s BBC documentary ‘Did Darwin Kill God?’ came out last year (March 2009), my wife and I went home for a visit and I showed the documentary to my family. We had a very fruitful discussion afterwards. Something that came up in the discussion was that one of my relatives said, ‘But it’s the atheists who say that evolution disproves God.’ Aside from many pages written to the contrary that break apart these unhelpful and false binaries, basically, these claims are by scientists who are looking at the science and bringing their pre-conceived cosmological claims to the table and then saying, ‘see, evolution means God doesn’t exist.’ It could easily be claimed that the Christian who comes to the science lab and is fine with evolution does the same thing, but the difference here I would argue is that the Christian at least has some inkling and basic understanding that belief is a part of one’s basic reasoning about things (cf. Michael Polanyi); whereas the atheists who usually make such claims (Dawkins, Dennet, the Churchlands, et al.) deny belief altogether, and so can’t even ultimately believe in their own belief in atheistic evolution.

I told my relative that scientists who say such things one way or the other are being bad scientists. At that point, they’re making theological, philosophical, and cosmological claims that are not an inherent part of their scientific method, as the questions of science bracket out such claims (cf. Heidegger’s analysis of science in ‘What is Metaphysics?’: ‘science says nothing about the nothing’). Theology and philosophy can theologize and philosophize about science, but when science does the same it is no longer ‘strictly’ science but should admit that it is now making such philosophical, theological, or cosmological claims. In other words, the category error here is not realizing that the relationship between these areas (although admittedly this is all a bit porous) is an asymmetrical one.

Kierkegaard’s Upbuilding Discourses

Oxford’s Christ Church College, where the Kierkegaard Upbuilding Discourses Conference was held.

Two and a half weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the ‘Kierkegaard’s Upbuilding Discourses’ Conference in Oxford at Christ Church College. I’m a bit behind on posting this, but today is Søren Kierkegaard’s 197th birthday so I thought I should at least owe that to him. Sadly, the volcanic ash cloud prevented a quarter of the European/Danish Kierkegaard scholars from attending and presenting. At the last minute, conference organizers George Pattison and Matthew Kirkpatrick had to revamp the entire conference schedule to account for the disruption of the absence of a significant portion of the conference delegates.

Notwithstanding, the event itself was incredibly fun and very lively. I had the honour of meeting and interacting with some of my favourite Kierkegaard scholars, including Joel Rasmussen, John Lippitt, Clare Carlisle, and George Pattison — as well as meeting a crew of up-and-coming very passionate Kierkegaardian scholars in their own right.

George Pattison

George Pattison is one of the only scholars in the English-speaking world to write extensively on the whole of the Upbuilding Discourses (aside from say Amy Laura Hall, C. Stephen Evans, and M. Jamie Ferreira who have written specifically on the Works of  Love which Pattison places within the ‘Discourse’ Literature), and acted as the guiding voice of the conference, helpfully providing insight into just about any specific point of Kierkegaard’s writings, especially issues of translation. Pattison is in the process of translating a selection of the discourses himself, continuing in the recent tradition of M. G. Piety and Alistair Hannay (e.g., SUD, FT, and CUP) of providing new translations which correct and build upon the Hong translations with which we are already so familiar. Of all the helpful points that Pattison offered, one of the suggestions that struck me was that Kierkegaard is nearly always over-looked in 20th-century discussions of ‘the gift’. All of these writers know the pseudonymous Kierkegaard, but by overlooking his discourse literature, they have missed three discourses on gift, which are all named around James 1:17Open Link in New Window: ‘Every Good and Every Perfect Gift Comes From Above’.

Christ Church College Dining Hall, which provided the inspiration for the Hogwart’s Dining Hall in the Harry Potter films

My paper was entitled ” ‘Practising Life in Death’: Equality, Stillness, and Earnestness in Kierkegaard’s Upbuilding Discourses.” The theme for the conference was the Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses and the Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions, so my paper focussed primarily on those two texts, but brought in the work of Eastern Orthodox theologian John Behr at the end. (e-mail me or post a comment if you’d like a copy of my paper.) I had a couple of good questions, one from Steven Shakespeare who simply asked if my inclusion of John Behr was something inherent in the ‘At a Graveside’ text in the Three Discourses. The short answer is that the Christological element was my own ‘leap’, my own creative addition onto the text where I think Kierkegaard very well could have gone, especially considering that the discourses are within the ‘direct communication’ of Kierkegaard’s authorship (not to mention the fact that the previous paper delivered by Paul Martens on a couple occasions raised the very point that Kierkegaard seems vague as to where he’s actually going in this discourse). All this suggests I should have just made that blatant in my introduction.

On the final night of the conference, Dr Hugh Pyper made a presentation about a certain old text he had rebound. He shared an e-mail from the bookbinder (is he an ‘hilarious’ one?) about what all went into the rebinding of this text. The text Hugh had rebound was a first edition of Søren Kierkegaard’s Atten Opbyggelige Taler, or Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses. It was a pretty incredible text to behold. Pictures are below.

Hugh Pyper, owner of the 1st edition of Kierkegaard’s Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses

Four Kierkegaard scholars examining the text, from left to right: John Lippitt, Claire Carlisle, Jolita Pons, and George Pattison

Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses title page with owner’s signature. But who is it?

On the title page is written what looks like “P. Kierk.” Hugh thought for a while that this may have been one “P. Kierkegaard”, that is, Peter Christian Kierkegaard, Søren’s brother, which would explain why the text was in fairly good condition (Peter Christian was known to not read the books on his shelves). After consulting with Arne Grøn, however, Grøn suggested that the signature is actually written in a gothic script. If that is the case, then the signature is actually “P. Keck.”, which means we have no idea who that is.

Next year will be the second of three conference on Kierekgaard’s Upbuilding Discourses, this time focused on Works of Love and Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits. It is scheduled for 29th April – 1st of May and will be held at the University of Sheffield. I’m looking forward to another lively conference, although hopefully with some of the Danish Kierkegaard scholars we missed this time around.

Lastly, George Pattison will be posting the conference papers on the Oxford University Research Archive (see, e.g., these papers from a Heidegger and Religion conference) for the benefit of those Danish and other European scholars who could not make it. Obviously that means that anybody with an internet connection can benefit as well. As soon as George Pattison sends out that link, I’ll be posting it here.

Kierkegaard and Deception

On the heels of this discussion, I was reminded of this great passage from Kierkegaard’s The Point of View for my Work as an Author:

What, then, does it mean “to deceive”? It means that one does not begin directly with what one wishes to communicate but begins by taking the other’s delusion at face value. Thus one does not begin (to hold to what essentially is the theme of this book) in this way: I am Christian, you are not a Christian–but this way: You are a Christian, I am not Christian. Or one does not begin in this way: It is Christianity that I am proclaiming, and you are living in purely esthetic categories. No, one begins this way: Let us talk about the esthetic. The deception consists in one’s speaking this way precisely in order to arrive at the religious. But according to the assumption the other person is in fact under the delusion that the esthetic is the essentially Christian, since he thinks he is a Christian and yet he is living in esthetic categories.

Even if ever so many pastors will find it indefensible, even if equally as many will be incapable of getting it into their heads—although all of them otherwise, according to their own statements, are accustomed to using the Socratic method—in this respect I calmly stick to Socrates. True, he was not Christian, that I know, although I also definitely remain convinced that he has become one. But he was a dialectician and understood everything in reflection. And the quesiton here is purely dialectical—it is the question of the use of reflection in Christendom. Qualitatively two altogether different magnitudes are involved here, but formally I can very well call Socrates my teacher—whereas I have believed and believe in only one, the Lord Jesus Christ (Søren Kierkegaard, The Point of View, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998], pp. 54-5).

Kierkegaard here is relating this maeutic form of instruction to the way his own writing has unfolded.  It’s also entirely similar to the way that Hamann’s own authorship came into being, although Kierkegaard is leaps and bounds easier to understand.

I think it’s interesting that here Kierkegaard lines up somewhat with the tradition of putting Socrates “within” the Judeo-Christian tradition in a sense.  Justin Martyr says directly that Socrates was a Christian, and Hamann counts Socrates among the “prophets” in his Socratic Memorabilia, yet here Kierkegaard takes a slightly different route and says that Socrates has become a Christian.

A Couple of Items

A new book symposium has begun on the Church and Postmodern Culture blog on Daniel A. Siedell’s God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art.  Two posts are up already, one by Jamie Smith and the other by Matthew Milliner (who blogs at  This Monday an engagement with the third chapter will be from Bruce Ellis Benson. The remainder of the schedule can be found here.

Second, I have begun a series of posts on Kierkegaard and Socrates over on Cynthia Nielsen’s Per Caritatem blog. The first post highlights Socrates’ importance for Kierkegaard at the end of his life, and the second post delves a bit into Kierkegaard’s “Sophistical” situation vis-à-vis the Danish Hegelian Christians of Copenhagen. I should have a third post up soon.

Kierkegaard, Levinas, and an Inwardness Higher Than Itself

One cannot (probably) have too much Kierkegaard on his birthday. This is a great bit from Mary-Jane Rubenstein on Kierkegaard that wraps up all sorts of Kierkegaardian themes as they work themselves out in response to a critique by Levinas:

illustrator © Archipictor Ossi Hiekkala

illustrator © Archipictor Ossi Hiekkala

Emmanuel Levinas claims that the Kierkegaardian subject, as radically inward, is egocentric: “Kierkegaard very powerfully rehabilitated the topics of subjectivity, uniqueness, and individuality.  He objected to the absorption of subjectivity into Hegelian universality, but he replaced it with subjectivity that was shamelessly exhibitionistic.” In order to demonstrate this self-important selfhood, Levinas refers to the Abraham of Fear and Trembling, the most offensive instance of “a subjectivity raising itself above the ethical to the level of the religious.”103 Yet Levinas makes such subjectivity far too easy.  The self thus constituted by repetition does not precede repetition itself, but emerges through it, and is thoroughly infused with the God-relationship. This subjectivity, then, is relational rather than identical and, insofar as the religious subject is constantly in a state of becoming, thanks to what Gillian Rose calls “the eminence of futurity at the intersection of eternity and time,”104 dynamic rather than static.  Repetition, as Deleuze reminds us, is always a gift and, as such, a scandal; the subject cannot merely summon repetition and constitute himself qua subject.  Kierkegaardian subjectivity, I would argue contra Levinas, does not raise itself above the ethical; rather, it is raised above the ethical. Between the two there is an absolute difference. And the subject that emerges through the madness of repetition is not a self-identical individual, alone in inwardness; it is rather a subject related at every turn to the eternal.  The highest form of this selfhood is only selfhood insofar as it exists in the God-relationship—inwardness, in other words, gives rise to something infinitely higher than inwardness (Mary-Jane Rubenstein, “Kierkegaard’s Socrates: A Venture in Evolutionary Theory,” Modern Theology 17, no. 4 (2001), p. 467).

Emphasizing the paradoxical nature of such an inwardness, Rubenstein says, “The very locus of the subject’s self is beyond him. In other words, this subjectivity, which cannot be considered by itself but only repeated, is profoundly ecstatic” (ibid).

103. Emmanuel Levinas, “Existence and Ethics” in Kierkegaard: A Critical Reader, Jonathan Rée and Jane Chamberlain, eds (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), pp. 26-38; p. 34.
104. Gillian Rose, The Broken Middle: Out of Our Ancient Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), p. 99.

BBC2 Documentary: “Did Darwin Kill God?”

Hey mate, were not in Ulster anymore!

My superviser Conor Cunningham has written a BBC2 documentary entitled “Did Darwin Kill God?” This will air 31 March 2009 at 7pm (GMT).  The idea of Conor’s documentary is that, from a theological perspective, he hopes to both provide a sharp critique of ultra-Darwinism on the one hand, while also offering a major critique to the Intelligent Design camp on the other.

Conor also has a book on evolution in the INTERVENTIONS series that goes into much more detail.  This is slated to come out this Fall.

UPDATE: There is now a podcast on the University of Nottingham podcast site that is an interview with Conor Cunningham about his forthcoming documentary: “A plague on both houses” (mp3 Friday 13 March 2009; 32.1MB, 34.41mins).

Kierkegaard’s Hardcover-only Writings Soon in Paperback

It was recently pointed out to me by Chris Simpson that the pseudonymous authorship of Kierkegaard only consists of roughly 45% of his total writings, whereas the other 55% were signed/”religious”. With that said, it is exciting to discover that some of the harder-to-find Princeton editions of Kierkegaard’s work consisting of this signed authorship–previously only available in hardcover and therefore cost-prohibitavely expensive–are soon coming out in paperback! These volumes tend to be ignored in the popular scholarship on Kierkegaard, but these works, along with his Journals and Papers, are essential for any Kierkegaard scholar.

Looking at the paperback column below, these are clearly more affordably priced, although some are still a bit pricey. Those ones tend to be the larger volumes over 500-700 pages or so (e.g. The Moment and Later Writings), but there may be exceptions.

Here’s a breakdown with a price comparison chart where the paperback prices listed are the pre-order prices from Amazon. Hopefully it’s not too confusing. That being said, those viewing this post in an RSS reader like Google Reader, Netvibes, etc., may way to view this post on the blog itself because the styles may get munged.

Cover Vol# Title Hardback Price $/£ Paperback List $/£ Paperback Price $/£ Release Date
I Early Polemical Writings 134.95* / £138.46
$35.00 / £19.95 $29.33 / £18.95
July 09 /
June 21, 09†
IX Prefaces/Writing Sampler $56.24 / $40.00‡ / £33.00
$29.95 / £17.95 $29.95 / £17.05 July 09 /
June 4, 09
X Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions $177.50* / £47.50
$24.95 / £14.95 $24.95 / £14.20 July 09 /
June 4, 09
XIII The Corsair Affair, and Articles Related to the Writings $500.00* / £unavail.
$29.95 / £17.95 $29.95 / £17.05 August 09 /
July 5, 09
XIV Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, A Literary Review $67.50 / $45.50 / £32.01
$24.95 / £14.95 $24.95 / £14.20 August 09 /
July 5, 09
XV Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits $199.99* / £unavai. $35.00 / £19.95 $29.33 / £18.95 July 09 /
June 21, 09
XVII Christian Discourses: The Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress $57.00 / £64.60 $45.00 / £26.95 $37.42 / £25.60 July 09 /
June 21, 09
XVIII Without Authority $80.00 / $42.38 / £37.95 $35.00 / £19.95 $29.33 / £18.95 July 09 /
June 4, 09
XXII The Point of View $75.96 / $70.00 / £64.60 $35.00 / £19.95 $29.33 / £18.95 July 09 /
June 4, 09
XXIII The Moment and Late Writings $83.84 / £58.90 $60.00 / £35.00 $49.55 / £33.25 July 09 /
June 21, 09
XXIV The Book on Adler $95.00 / $50.00 / £44.88 $40.00 / £23.95 $33.38 / £22.75 August 09 /
July 5, 09
XXV Letters and Documents $125.00 / $85.00 / £99.14 $65.00 / £38.95 $53.59 / £37.00 August 09 /
July 5, 09
XXVI Cumulative Index to Kierkegaard’s Writings $99.50 / $90.00 / £59.95 $65.00 / £38.95 $53.59 / £37.00 July 09 /
June 21, 09

* Items designated with an asterisk mean that Amazon only has them “used and new from [x price]”, indicating that they don’t have any in stock and used bookstores or individual resellers are trying to scalp them at usually batshit crazy insane prices (e.g. The Corsair Affair).

† The Princeton site for Kierkegaard’s works only lists a release date in “Month Year” format whereas Amazon has more specific dates that don’t always align with these dates. The format will be “[Princeton Date] / [Amazon Date]”. We all know that Amazon’s release dates don’t really signify anything real, so take these with a grain of salt.

‡ Hardcover prices with two prices listed are for the “[New Price] / [Used Price]” where the used price is the best price available in the Amazon Marketplace.

My Adviser on BBC Radio

charlesdarwinFast-forward to 1 hour, 14 minute mark and you can hear my adviser Conor Cunningham, along with others, talking for about 15 about faith and evolution in light of the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species:

BBC Radio Ulster: Sunday Sequence with William Crawley

[Note: There’s a chance that the BBC iPlayer may not work outside the UK, my apologies, although if you Google around a bit, there may be ways around this.]

Symposium on Christ, History and Apocalyptic

A series of posts has begun around Nate Kerr’s book Christ, History and Apocalyptic: The Politics of Christian Mission over on the Church and Postmodern Culture blog.  First up is Joshua Davis on the introductory chapter 1, who has just posted his engagement on Monday.  The conversation is already picking up nicely.

Here is the rest of the schedule:

  • 19 January – Chapter 2: “Ernst Troeltsch: The Triumph of Ideology and the Eclipse of Apocalyptic”, response by David Congdon
  • 26 January – Chapter 3: “Karl Barth: Foundations for an Apocalyptic Christology”, response by John McDowell
  • 2 February – Chapter 4: “Stanley Hauerwas: Apocalyptic, Narrative Ecclesiology, and ‘the Limits of Anti-Constantinianism’ “, response by John W. Wright
  • 9 February – Chapter 5: “John Howard Yoder: The Singularity of Jesus and the Apocalypticization of History”, response by Douglas Harink
  • 16 February – Chapter 6: “Towards an Apocalyptic Politics of Mission”, response by James K. A. Smith
  • 23 February – Concluding response by Nathan R. Kerr (although he has already been providing helpful clarifying comments already)

Also, Nate informs me that Cascade Books is still offering a 40% off discount if the book purchased through their site using the discount code “KERR40”, bringing the book down to $16.80 (significantly cheaper than Amazon).

Dave Belcher informs us that there will be a panel at this year’s Wesleyan Theological Society conference on Nate’s book as well.  Panelists include Scott Daniels, John Wright, Sam Powell, and Michael Cartwright, with Nate responding, and Dave Belcher at the moderating helm.

Brief Thoughts on Irony


It is often said by the British that Americans do not understand irony. I think this is true depending upon which swath of Americans are being referred to, but by no means is it true in my circles of friends on the West coast. If I remember correctly, though, the place I heard this generalisation uttered was referring more to American pop culture: whereas American pop culture is more defined by glitz, glorification of celebrity, explosions and violence on television on movies, British pop culture, from what I can tell thus far, seems to be more defined by–yes–irony, wittiness (or attempts thereof), and sly humour.

Having now lived in England for a short period of about six months, I’m not so sure if irony is as ‘essential’ to the culture (if there can be such a thing) as just the fact of societal indirectness. When it comes to humour, this is great. But when it comes to relationships it seems like at its worst, such indirectness can quickly become passive aggressive writ large. Although, perhaps Americans are just too direct, too aggressive.

Now, on one level, as long as it moves beyond it’s stylistic embodiments in culture, irony is perfectly fine. Heck, I even wrote an MA thesis partly on irony (“Contradiction, Paradox, and Irony: Theological and Philosophical Stances of Hegel and Kierkegaard”). Søren Kierkegaard, in more ways than one, was an ironic figure, and even extoled the virtues (so to speak) of indirectness and indirect communication. In so many ways, especially within his context of Christendom, Kierkegaard’s approach seems to me the right one — and are we not in the same context?

Yet, I am not always so sure about this. Because of it’s tendencies toward sarcasm (of the biting kind), and because real relationships don’t really seem to work very well if one person thinks they can really be a gadfly, I am reminded of when Jesus said that we should let our “yes be yes” and our “no be no” (Matthew 5:37Open Link in New Window; James 5:12Open Link in New Window). Quintilian’s definition of irony is that the “phenomenon is different from the essence”; in other words, that when one speaks, they do not mean what they say. This is the famous definition of Socratic irony.

I am not entirely sure what to make of this yet… I went to sleep last night thinking of this for some reason. Clearly, I am not going to make some banal claim such that “see, Socrates isn’t Christian” or other obviously anachronistic idiocies. Kierkegaard/Anti-Climacus is correct when he talks about the indirect communication of the God-man in Practice in Christianity, which is something quite different from one’s communication. It’s like the indirectness of the God-man was more an existential one of stance or ‘comportment’. But then, I am reminded that Jesus Christ is the Father’s communication as the Word, so then I get confused again. I’m just thinking aloud.

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

These are slightly old now (in internet time), but here are a couple of noteworthy reviews in NDPR:

Paul Draper has a very good and critical review of Naturalism, which is written by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro (Interventions series).  The final paragraph:

Although [Goetz and Taliaferro]’s assessment of naturalism is, in my opinion, far from complete, I would highly recommend the book to philosophy students at all levels. It would be an ideal text for a course in metaphysics or philosophy of mind or even philosophy of religion. For not only is it a very short book, which increases the likelihood that students would actually read it, but it is full of arguments that are rigorous, clear, and free of technical jargon. In addition to being accessible, these arguments provide excellent models for students to imitate in their own philosophical writing. I would also strongly recommend the book to professional philosophers, especially to naturalists. For the book is an excellent reminder that, while naturalism is unquestioned by most philosophers, there remains serious and all too often unanswered opposition to it, and the problems it faces are deep and difficult.

Not a bad book cover, either, eh?

David Burrell has a review of Michael Allen Gillespie’s newest book entitled The Theological Origins of Modernity.  The book sounds rather disappointing on Burrell’s take.  Which reminds me: I still need to finish Gillespie’s earlier work, which I’ve been told by people who have read both, is quite a bit better.  Oh here I go, getting all ‘indie’ on genealogical takes on philosophy and theology, oy.

In other news, it’s 4:30pm and the sun set about an hour ago.  I’m definitely not anywhere used to that.

Milbank and Agamben: Add your own caption

Today I was in the video editing studio capturing and editing some of the footage from the Grandeur of Reason onference.  By somewhat of a happy accident, when I was scrubbing through the Agamben footage, I landed on this frame — and had to take a screenshot:

So I will leave it up to you to provide a caption!

[And just to provide a brief update, we may have 4 or 5 of the sessions posted in a week or two online.  Video editing and rendering takes way longer than I thought.  Apparently all the capturing has to be done in real time so I have to watch through all of these sessions again.  I guess there’s no fast-forward button on that part.  I spent 8 hours in the studio today just to get 4 videos done, dang.]

After Enlightenment

John Betz’s new and important book on Hamann is just out: After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamaan (Illuminations series, more details here).  Our library doesn’t have it yet, and it is outrageously expensive — and I heard it may only be published in hardback — so I may not be able to borrow it from these parts for another few weeks.

Meanwhile, Peter Leithart has begun blogging the book:

Hopefully there will be more to come; it’s a rather large book, and in the newer, weird, large-and-bulky Blackwell format (e.g., the 2nd edition of Theology and Social Theory and William Desmond’s God and the Between).

Grandeur of Reason round-up

Some excellent reports and reflections:

Reflections and a report on the Grandeur of Reason conference

Grandeur of ReasonLast Thursday was the last day of the four-day Grandeur of Reason conference.  [Immediately after returning from the conference my wife and I took a bus down to London to visit a very good friend and I’ll have a separate post on that with pictures later…all of which is why I am only now blogging this.]  I attended with many of the University of Nottingham crew along with a total of over 250 attendees–180 of whom also presented papers.  It was a very, very full conference, and I was definitely put to work.  Unfortunately, there were some papers I was not able to attend that I really wanted to see, but that is what happens in a large conference such as this I suppose.  I’ll attempt to go over some anecdotal highlights of the trip for myself.  I’m looking forward to other blog reports from other perspectives!

I met the rest of the students from the University of Nottingham, including Andrew Thomas (lives in Norway) and Chris Hackett who is now studying at the University of Virginia, not to mention Philip Gorski and Thomas Lynch who is finishing up his MA.

Also, I had the pleasure of meeting Paul Tyson whose PhD adviser wrote a bookback in 1994 which is basically very similar to my own proposed research thesis.  Thing is, I didn’t know about this similarity until a few months after I had already been accepted to the University of Nottingham. I had seen a footnote that Paul gave to his adviser’s book in the recently-released Belief and Metaphysics volume (see p. 412).  Paul had some very encouraging words to say regarding that, and he was a great conversation partner.  I hope to talk to him more and read more of his work.

I had this conversation with Paul on the way to St. Peter’s cathedral on the Sunday before the conference started.  I don’t think I quite realized where we were going because within 90 minutes of arriving in Rome I was standing in front of an amazing sight:

We didn’t have a chance to walk around inside the cathedral because we had to head off to a late lunch and head back to the conference hotel to finish up putting together the packets of information for each delegate.

When the panels started the next morning at 9:00am, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the papers at this conference were top-notch.  Rarely did I hear a paper that disappointed, and most also invited good discussion. The first plenary on Monday evening consisted of a session arranged by Conor of three of his former professors: James Williams, Cyril O’Regan, and Graham Ward.  Of the three, I was really only familiar with the topic of Graham’s paper on ‘Hegel and  the Messianic’ considering my MA thesis was half on Hegel.  I want to be sure and follow up with him about as I am curious to see where his paper was intending to go–he was not able to finish the full implications of the direction of his thought due to time restraints.

The next morning I heard a very interesting panel which consisted of a paper entitled ‘If’ by Darrell Lackey (the only other former resident of central California in addition to myself at the conference); a paper on ‘A NonMisologist Platonism’ and the director Pasolini by Jones Irwin; and a paper by Cornelius Simut on the thought of Edward Schillebeeckx.  It was a surprisingl good panel.  Darrell had never presented a paper at a conference like this before and I would say he performed rather well, and his pastoral perspective was especially welcome.  Jones Irwin’s paper was extremely intriguing regarding the work of Pasolini, and moreover, it was a surprisingly hospitable paper in regards to the conference topic (Tony Baker–the chair of that panel–and I were talking afterwards and definitely wanted to find out more about Pasolini).  Cornelius Simut’s paper on Schillebeeckx was, for me, a helpful and bizarre introduction to the thought of Schillebeeckx.  It was helpful because Simut’s paper was focused on little-known interviews with Schillebeeckx and it was bizarre primarily because of what Schillebeeckx actually believes.  I’m probably the last to know this, but basically, Simut made the comment a couple of times that he was suprised that Hans Kung got censored (or whatever the official word is) but that Schillebeeckx did not, especially considering that Kung is far less radical than Schillebeeckx.

After lunch I was to present a paper with probably a few too many “and”‘s in the title: “The Grandeur and Disenchantment of Reason: Universalism and Irony in Hegel and Kierkegaard.”  The other students in the panel in which I was a part during the Tuesday afternoon student session were of high quality and the question and answer sessions after each were well-informed and lively.  I would have liked to have attended the other Nottingham student papers, but they were all scheduled during the same time slot. After my paper people asked me how it went and all I could really say was, “people tell me it went well.”  I got good questions and people complimented my paper but I honestly still feel like I can’t produce a real opinion on my performance just yet.  So I think it went okay!?

Later that evening was the second plenary with François Laruelle, Michele Lenoci, and Dustin McWherter.  Quentin Meillassoux was actually supposed to be presenting on that panel as well but just a few days before the conference–and after the programmes were printed–his father-in-law passed away and so he could not attend.  I confess a nearly complete ignorance with the thought of these thinkers, so I will just post one picture for now of Laruelle (more later, probably in a post here).

The next morning began with a visit to the Vatican.  Here is Graham Ward (back of his head), John Milbank, and Stanley Hauerwas standing in line:

We were standing in line to see Pope Benedict XVI give an address.  And here he is:

I forget how large the audience was here, but I think it was something slightly below 10,000 people.  Groups from around the world were introduced (“pilgrims from Nigeria…”, etc.), greeting Benedict with songs, flag-waving, cheers, and even brief musical numbers.  And, despite the silly outfits of the Swiss guards (see above), it was a celebratory occasion: the catholicity in the room was apparent.  The pope spoke in maybe 6 different languages, greeting different peoples and giving a brief homily of sorts.  Afterwards, Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank personally greeted the pope and gave him a painting painted by Conor Cunningham’s sister, Sara Cunningham-Bell.

The remainder of Wednesday and Thursday consisted of non-stop panels.  The first one after the Vatican visit was a plenary session with Oliver O’Donovan, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Milbank (chair: Graham Ward).  As was to be expected, it was a varied and lively session:

As well as a session with Daniel M. Bell, Stephen Long, and Michael Budde (chair: Hauerwas…and apologies for the bad white balance on this one):

Thursday was jam-packed with sessions including a session on the three recently-released books in the INTERVENTIONS series of books published by Eerdmans.  The volumes on Naturalism, Žižek, and Heidegger were represented by Charles Taliaferro and Stewart Goetz (pictured far left), Marcus Pound (pictured 3rd from left), and Sean McGrath (pictured far right), respectively, with Pete Candler and Conor Cunningham (pictured 4th and 5th from left) both chairing the session as well as representing themselves as the editors of the series:

The final plenary session was with Giorgio Agamben who spoke on the topics of his recent research on oikonomia and glory in Il Regno e la Gloria (helpful chapter-by-chapter notes can be found here on this work still not translated into English):

I’m still pretty tired from the conference, and there was a frickin’ ton of papers, so much of the sessions are a bit of a blur.  But, despite all the lack of sleep, and despite the fact that it would have been better if all of the attendees could have stayed in one place instead of scattered throughout different hotels/seminaries–I would say it was overall a good conference.  It was especially nice to see friends that I do not see very often such as Craig Keen and many of his former students, as well as the friends I have continued to stay in touch with since Granada in 2006 and the AAR in San Diego last year.  It was also a pleasure to finally meet both the Archbishop of Granada whom I had not met when we were in Granada back then, as well as Dave Belcher–whose paper was quite beautiful (and who I somehow missed meeting at a conference that my pastor organized back in January 2007).

Every night we were up late till 3 or 4am and up again by 9am for the sessions, so while I am sleeping until term starts for me on the 22nd of this month, I look forward to hearing reflections from others who have blogs or who would care to add anything in the comments section below (and unfortunately I just read that Ben Myers got sick, so I am not sure how much of the conference he was able to attend).

As a final note, we plan on posting more pictures (in full resolution), videos of the plenaries + Q&A sessions for each, etc. online sometime soon, so stay tuned here or here for that.


The programmes for the Grandeur of Reason conference have been printed as of yesterday.  I have to continue writing my paper so that page 10 won’t be tellin’ lies.  More later!

The Return of Metaphysics

If you attended the Radical Orthodoxy and Process Theology panel at the 2007 AAR in San Diego, one of the interesting commonalities between the two sensibilities was an embrace of a return to metaphysics.  In 2006, the Centre of Theology and Philosophy hosted a conference called ‘Belief and Metaphysics’ (CoTP report here) around this issue (although not related to process) and subsequently published a collection of essays from the conference by the same title.

At this year’s AAR in Chicago, Nate Kerr is moderating a panel on the recently-released Belief and Metaphysics volume in the Veritas series entitled “The Return of Metaphysics: A dialogue on the occasion of the publication of Belief and Metaphysics.”  The panel is graciously sponsored by SCM PressVeritas Series and The Centre of Theology and PhilosophyClick on the poster above to see the larger version which lists all the details for the event, including the list of panelists.  If you received your AAR book in the mail this past week, you will also find these details listed on page 151. It looks to be a pretty exciting panel!

Regrettably, chances are very likely that I will not be able to attend the AAR this year because of our upcoming move to Nottingham in the fall.  We have a bit too much going on and not enough money to fly everywhere and attend everything.  However, I will be going to and presenting at this, which will be much easier to get to from Nottingham.  Still, if you can make it to the AAR, I highly encourage attendance at this this panel.  It looks to be quite interesting and a lot of fun with a good diverse response to the book.  The book itself is very diverse so we’ll see what happens!